Why It’s Important for Parents to Show Their True Feelings

Why It's Good for Parents to Show Their True Feelings

One of the most important qualities of healthy relationships is authenticity – being who we are, frayed edges and all. Being authentic in a relationship creates connection, openness, trust and acceptance. Provided the relationship is based in genuine intent, authenticity means that there is no need for anyone to filter out the parts of themselves that might not make it into the top 100 ‘most adorable things about me’. 

Of course there will always be times to put the woolly parts of ourselves away, but what does this look like when it comes to being parents? How much of our emotional selves should we put away to be good for our children and how much should we show?

There isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t get sad, cranky, furious, scared from time to time. Sometimes these feelings find a decent grip and they stay for a while. In the midst of the heaviness, our kids will be watching everything we do. They might not know the details but they’re smart, and would likely get a sense when the outside of us doesn’t match what’s happening on the inside.

It’s completely understandable that we would want to protect our kids from the grown-up details of the messiness of life. There are some things that their child status protects them from. But there is a balance that needs to be struck.

New research has found that always putting on a happy face might not be the best for us or for our kids. The study found that parents who ‘try to be perfect’ for their children risk lower authenticity, poorer relationships with their children and reduced responsiveness to their children.

 Part of the reason for this is that depressing negative feelings and exaggerating positive ones tends to lead parents to feel worse about themselves.

 Parents experienced costs when regulating their emotions in these ways because they felt less authentic, or true to themselves … It is important to note that amplifying positive emotions was relatively more costly to engage in, indicating that controlling emotions in ways that may seem beneficial in the context of caring for children can come at a cost.– Dr. Bonnie Le (lead author), University of Toronto.

One of our very important roles as parents is to nurture our children’s awareness around difficult emotions. What do big feelings look like? How do they feel? What do they mean? How do I deal with them? What about when those messy feelings belong to someone I love? There are plenty of lessons to learn, so it’s a good thing that we have plenty of time to teach them. And that we will be given plenty of opportunities. 

The primary concern of children will always be ‘what about me’. The key then, is to let them see when we feel wobbly, but to let them know that we’ll be okay and so will they. Difficult emotions become threatening when they come with a bagload of unknowns, the biggest one being, ‘What does this mean for me.’ All feelings are important – the bad ones too. They are also unavoidable and part of living a healthy, happy, fulfilled life means knowing how to handle them.

When our children see us being okay with our own messy feelings, it gives them permission to do the same. They won’t have the skills to manage them for a while, and that’s okay. What’s important is that they see that everyone feels bad sometimes and that they have opportunities to learn from how we deal with them.

It is important to measure the intensity of our emotional honesty according to what our children can cope with. Nobody is suggesting that we expose our children to every square inch of our raw and fragile feelings, but the alternative to baring our emotional all doesn’t have to be hiding it. There is middle ground and it’s about the intensity of what we show and the reassurances we give with it. Letting them see that we feel difficult feelings too sometimes, and that we’re okay with that, will help them to expand their their emotional intelligence in terms of their own feelings, other people’s feelings, and how to manage them in a way that lets them thrive.

9 Comments

Katie

Isn’t it funny how the universe sometimes sends us the things we need at appropriate times… I am currently working through some deep-seated issues from my own childhood that relate back to some bizarre ways of dealing with emotions. I think it is so important that we keep the dialogue going on healthy parenting choices so that the next generation doesn’t struggle as significantly with anxiety and depression.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes absolutely! I’m so pleased this article found you when you needed it. It’s such an important conversation to keep having isn’t it.

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marina

Wonderful article. This put words on things I have been sensing without being able to articulate them. I am glad I have been following this instinct, and I will continue to do so. Authenticity has been a leading principle in my life, and the key to any healthy and meaningful relationship, in my opinion. There are areas of my life where I still “put on a smile” systematically and refuse to break down the walls, though, and I guess that’s okay, as long as you don’t keep doing that with people you love. you can’t open up with everyone and at all times, and that’s why true friendships are rare and precious to me.

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Hey Sigmund

Marina you’re so right. Keep following your instincts and letting authenticity be an important part of your relationships. There will be people who don’t see all of you and then the people who do. Let the ones who love you see you fully for who you are. That authenticity will be one of the things that makes you a completely wonderful friend to be with.

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skeeter

This a great and timely article. We have been discussing authenticity a great deal in our family. The greatest gift we can give to ourselves and our children is to discover as a family who we are and not who people want us to be.

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Bridgit

I was just talk with a fellow teacher about how doing this with students seems to get me lots of “credit” (for lack of a better term) with them.

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Natalie

I couldn’t agree more, I came from a family who never discussed feelings and emotions and my father struggled with depression during our childhood and it was something that was never talked about openly. I felt very anxious because intuitively I knew he was suffering. I always felt that we should have helped him through it but it was only until years later that I could fully comprehend what he must of gone through. I think there are a lot of families out there trying to refrain from placing emotional baggage on to their children but this in effect can lead to feeling very disconnected as a family unit. Such a well written peice.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Natalie for sharing this. I imagine it must have been difficult for all of you – for your dad to feel as though he had to keep things to himself and for you because you knew that something wasn’t right but you didn’t know what. This can be a frightening thing for anyone, and certainly for a child or adolescent in relation to a parent. Thankfully we are finding out more and more about how important it is to acknowledge feelings in healthy ways.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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